The Iowa Caucuses: a Political Mess, but a Teaching Opportunity?

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 04, 2020 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Civics and government teachers have their hands full, between teaching the official opening of the presidential primary season with the Iowa caucuses, President Trump’s State of the Union address tonight, and the soon-to-be-concluded Senate impeachment trial—all within just hours of each other.

The fast-moving impeachment situation has posed ongoing challenges for educators. But of the three, the situation in the Iowa caucuses is perhaps the most immediately perpexing for both students and teachers to wrap their heads around. The caucus process itself is convoluted, and the results were impacted by a glitchy app and telephone hotline that prevented hundreds of caucus chairs from reporting the results of the state’s nearly 1,700 caucuses in a timely way. The delay was especially disappointing to Democratic political watchers, who hoped that they’d provide some degree of clarity in a crowded primary field.

But as usual, where there are challenges, there are also opportunities. Here are three ideas teachers might explore in their classrooms—all gathered from practicing teachers and civic education organizations.

The youth turnout. A civics education research group at Tufts University (take a deep breath to get through this title), the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, put out a straw poll of Iowa youth (18- to 29-year-olds) a few weeks before the caucuses. (Spoiler: They tended to favor Bernie Sanders and were generally not keen on Joe Biden.) It would be enlightening to compare these findings with the actual tallies from the caucuses—still not released at the time of this writing, and with the upcoming turnout in New Hampshire and other primary states.

Teachers could start by asking some of these questions: Why might youth favor some candidates and not others? Did youth turn out at the same level as they did in 2016? Why did results for all Iowans reflect (or not reflect) youth preferences? Not long ago, I wrote a story about a math teacher who helped her students understand that elections are often won when political parties focus on particular constituencies to help eke out a win. Who might those have been in Iowa?

The impact on the primaries in general. Criticisms of the caucus process aren’t exactly new. Iowa has long been a flashpoint. It’s homogenous, not highly populated, and much less racially diverse than most other states, yet its curious caucus system has had an outsize influence on the modern system of party primaries since the 1970s. The new round of glitches seem to have prompted an outpouring of criticism that they simply aren’t a good enough foundation to lead the pack.

But that begs the question: How would one improve it? If Iowa didn’t lead things off, how would the primary process change for the rest of the nation? Would a national political primary held on the same day—the standard in many other countries, and often suggested as a replacement—be an improvement, or would it also have tradeoffs?

Media literacy. There was an explosion of trading in conspiracy theories following the caucuses, and there is now evidence that some of them were being purposely amplified by both right- and left-leaning gadflies, including through false Twitter accounts. Among other things, these theories are claiming that the results are rigged; that final tallies, when they do come out, can’t be trusted (which is not true; they are based on paper recounts), and that certain candidates who seemed to be trending last night, like Pete Buttigieg, were somehow tied to the malfunctioning app. President Trump himself has used the confusion to bolster his own re-election bid and to cast doubt on the nation’s electoral processes in general.

There is quite a lot of evidence that students have a poor ability to judge the quality of what they read online (many adults do, too), so this is a good time for teachers to have students practice some media literacy skills: How should they judge some of the claims coming out from all over the internet about the results of this caucus? How can they determine whether a tweet has any basis in reality? We now know, by the way, that the explicit teaching of skills like these can improve students’ ability to critically consume digital information.

There’s even a point to be made that in fixating on quick results, mainstream media are driving up hysteria instead of covering the current attempt by Iowa officials to methodically review all the paper voting materials from each caucus.

For Stephanie Sleeper, a high school social studies teacher, in the Mount Mansfield Unified Union district, in Richmond, Vt., teachers’ key duty is providing context.

“Because my students don’t have a lot of knowledge of how the presidency has worked in the past, or how people live outside of Vermont, I always give context,” she said. “So, some of the history of the State of the Union and how the bully pulpit works; how and why the Iowa caucus became the “first in the nation"; and how horse-race journalism affects presidential elections,” she said. “I think it helps them to understand different factors and how we have changed over time. It hasn’t always been this way, and on many occasions it has been worse.

“They are very distrustful of institutions like political parties and I do spend some time dispelling misinformation and disinformation while also giving them space to figure out what could work better. I think showing them how we have managed to overcome some major challenges helps them,” she concluded.

Image: Precinct captain Carl Voss, of Des Moines, Iowa, holds his iPhone that shows the Iowa Democratic Party’s caucus reporting app. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.